ManiacalShen (email


Summary: On an idyllic country hillside rests a grandiose cottage - one that tries to kill everyone who tries to spend the night inside. Can Xena and Gabrielle uncover the source of the carnage and put a stop to it?

Author’s Note: Happy Halloween!


"You two look like you’re up to a challenge!”

It was a late afternoon in Fall, under newly-clear skies. Until this moment, Xena and Gabrielle had been approaching a village with visions of a hot bath and a dry bed dancing in their heads. Gabrielle would bet even Argo was imagining a warm barn and fresh hay as she plodded and squelched along behind them.

But as they reached the edge of the town proper, this woman had jogged out in front of them with her observation. She looked to be about Xena’s age and was plainly dressed in sturdy, well-kept clothes, her canny green eyes peering from under a tousle of light brown curls.

The pair of travelers failed to respond to her announcement, and her rakish smile began to flag. She cleared her throat. “Rather, you look like adventurous types. Brave travelers.”

"I... guess you could call us that," Gabrielle finally replied, leaning on her staff and trying to keep her dubious tone in check. “Who are you?”

“Sinna. I’m a weaver here, in town, and my husband tailors.” Sinna did not move to get out of their way, or even drop her nosy air. “Am I right? Are you two warriors? Veterans of many battles?”

Gabrielle could see Xena shift the full power of her piercing regard onto the woman, who took a half step back.

"What're you getting at? You want something?"

"There's, well- the inn's full, you see."

A glance at what was clearly the inn revealed elaborate spiderwebs in several of the upper floor windows. And Gabrielle would bet her last dinar the rightmost shutters were stuck shut.

"Aand... rather, but there is somewhere to stay for free, if you're brave enough." Her tone steadied as she went, and the speech took on a practiced, dramatic air. "On the opposite hillside over yonder, there stands a sturdy cottage overlooking some of the finest grazing land available. The inside is dusty these days, but it’s dry and comfortable still, with a clean hearth and a good roof. I've seen it myself, during the day.” She paused and raised her eyebrows. “But many a brawny warrior has strode into this town, declared themselves up for the challenge of staying there for one, single night - and failed." The woman cocked an eyebrow and delivered a smirk.

Gabrielle was nonplussed. All she and Xena wanted were food, cleanliness, and sleep, and they were willing to pay for all of it. They had nothing to prove to these people or each other, and she had never heard of such a weird setup.

Xena, meanwhile, looked at the woman with visible consternation. “Lady, why would they accept the challenge? What’s in it for a salty old merc, other than a night out of the wet?”

Sinna blinked. “Money, of course. Sorry, I should have said earlier. The town took up a collection. I think there’s a new bedroll and a dagger with a tooled sheath in there, too.”

Gabrielle brightened a little. “Oh, that sounds nice.” Their bedroll was getting pretty ratty, after many muddy nights and not enough time drying in the sun.

But Xena pressed, “And what happened to the others? You didn’t give prizes to all of ‘em, I’m guessing.”

“They died.”

“What?!” Gabrielle exclaimed.

“Well not all of them!” the woman insisted. “A few ran for the hills, or back to town. At least, we assume they ran for the hills. We never found bodies.”

Gabrielle threw her palms out. “Why didn’t you start with that?!”

Meanwhile, Xena ground a hand through her hair and took a long breath. “You’re telling me there’s a cottage around the bend where out-of-towners regularly get murdered?”

“Not just out-of-towners. A few villagers have tried to take up residence in it, since it was empty, and…” the woman gestured vaguely.

Xena and Gabrielle shared a look. Dubious theatrics and unsolicited challenges aside, they weren’t in the business of leaving things like this alone. Who knew what would happen if they just moved on without investigating?

Gabrielle turned back to their greeter. “We’ll stay there tonight. But first, we want a meal at the inn. And - a refill of our wineskin.” Why not?

Xena elbowed her, and when Gabrielle looked over she caught the end of an eye roll. “We also need a spot in the stable for my horse, fodder included. I’ll curry her myself.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Right, yeah, that, too.”

The woman looked surprised. “Oh, I - I think I can arrange that. The inn is over there; follow me.”

After another shared glance, the pair followed Sinna. Besides fueling what might be a long night, the tavern would hopefully hold people who knew more context for the bizarre situation in which they found themselves.

Gabrielle spared one last thought for a long, safe sleep as she walked.


Their shadows had grown longer by the time they rounded the far hillside. Xena had expected a simple, two-room shepherd's residence nestled there, with perhaps a shed or barn. But before them on a flatter section of ground stood a veritable country mansion - two floors with a sizable front porch and windows that Xena suspected were angled to catch the light and the breeze just so.

Fancy. But also, more rooms in which trouble could hide.

“If this is as dangerous as they say it is, I might just take that reward for once,” Xena grumbled on the final approach.

Gabrielle, who had been plodding alongside with the aid of her staff, turned to smile fondly at her. “And beat them with the sack of dinars for good measure?”

“And shove that pretty, tooled sheath right up their-”

“Xena, you wouldn’t!” Gabrielle laughed and shoved her. Which almost made Xena smile through her theatrical grousing, pleased as ever to have a partner who knew and loved her well enough to giggle in the face of graphic threats.

She gamely stumbled into the shove, then threw a friendly arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, only to then start mussing her hair with her other hand. They wrestled, accompanied by Gabrielle’s outraged yelling, until Xena took several loud smacks on her chest armor and the leather over her belly. At that point she figured Gabrielle’s hands had taken enough punishment, so she let go. They stood while Gabrielle muttered darkly and collected herself, failing to completely suppress a grin.

Xena admitted, “Yeah, I wouldn’t, but Gabrielle, if what they said is true they’ve been as good as murdering mercenaries and soldiers who wander through here.” She reached out to straighten some golden strands Gabrielle had missed, tucking them behind her ear for good measure.

Gabrielle took Xena’s hand and kissed its back before she let it pull away. Then she countered, “IF what they say is true. Who knows what will happen here in the middle of the night? My money is on some of the townspeople showing up to rob us blind. Then you and I can beat them up and turn them into the rest of the town tomorrow morning.”

They resumed walking, skimming around a large puddle. “Could be… but we’ve seen weirder things than a house that kills anyone who tries to sleep in it. They said the woman who last lived there poisoned her husband, and he was supposedly some genius builder turned architect. Plenty room there for something to have gone sideways before or since all that.”

“She murdered him and his patron, or at least someone from a family that wanted to be his patron,” corrected Gabrielle.

According to the townspeople - all of whom were perfectly eager to share their recollection of the sordid story - the wife, Skalme, was the only heir to the cottage and a fair herd of sheep, while the husband, Stallos, had been the second son of a builder. They had fallen in love while he worked a job in town with his family, and they married once it was complete. He doted on her and their home, expanding it and his skills as she tended the herds. They had been happy for a while. But the once-happy marriage ended with three dead bodies, the last being Skalme’s.

“Well, I don’t think they were lying about him being a genius,” Xena remarked. As the house came into focus, its striking lines, generous proportions, and fine details became all the more obvious, and the whole picture was unlike anything in the town. Stone bolstered the corners of the house, while large, shapely rocks were arranged in front almost like plants in a garden, bringing an understated visual interest to the facade. It drew the eye to the porch, where the wood columns holding up the awning held embellishments in relief. Primarily birds and animals, including a flying hawk, a badger, and a serpent, its tongue teasing the air at about knee level. “This isn’t just building; it’s design and art. The upscale families in Rome would have loved him.”

Xena and Gabrielle mounted the sturdy porch and opened the door, stepping out of the waning sunlight. The entryway split the main level with a rectangle of dark stone flooring leading to the stairwell, against which stood shelves that were now empty. One had a rudely carved sheep figurine in it, while long-dried mud clung to the bottom ones, likely where the worst field-soiled shoes would have once rested and dried.

To the left, they found a large sitting room with some couches no one had bothered to loot, scattered candles, a few wall hangings of woven grass, and a tangle of something atop the hearth that turned out to be woven, dyed wool - a bit of homely art likely meant for decoration that would never be completed. The hearth itself was a handsome heap of grey stone, its gradients broken up with artful flair, and a generous pile of firewood sitting alongside.

Xena and Gabrielle lit a fire against the waning sun and lit a few candles.

“I’ll explore the upstairs,” Gabrielle volunteered, and Xena grunted an acknowledgement, herself heading back across the entryway.


Upon reaching the dusty landing with a yawn, a glint to the right caught Gabrielle’s attention. An open doorway led into a bedroom with a large, sturdy bed under the half-open window, its pallet gone moldy from rain. And at its feet, above a discoloration in the floor that looked to be the shape of a large chest, hung a mirror of polished bronze. Reasoning it must have caught her candlelight, Gabrielle approached for a closer look. She had rarely seen one so large or fine outside of a palace, and few were as ornate.

According to villagers in the tavern, the skills Stallos built by experimenting on his home drew attention from a series of rich and richer clients in the region, even as Skalme became unwell and began to go mad at home. Perhaps this had been a gift from a client? The frame was fashioned to look like entwined serpents chasing each other in an endless loop around the mirror. Bared fangs lunged for the next snake’s middle, and each twined their tails around the previous one.

As she admired it, wondering about the choice of subject matter, another glint caught her eye. It wasn’t her candle, and the angle wasn’t right for it to be a stray flash of waning sunlight. Unless it was bouncing off of something she was wearing?

Gabrielle looked down at herself, then looked up to examine yet another speck of light. This time, she noticed the movement wasn’t right for a quick flash off of moving metal; it drifted like a speck of ash.

As she watched it, she noticed Xena materialize in the dark doorway behind her, a sardonic lilt to her mouth suggesting she had a crack to make about Gabrielle staring into mirrors. Gabrielle opened her mouth to head it off as Xena stepped closer, but she stopped when Xena placed her finger in front of her lips and winked.

With a blink of surprise, Gabrielle turned around to address her - but no one was there.


Xena listened to Gabrielle’s footsteps travel up the stairs as she moved across the entryway to the next room, which turned out to be a dining and work space, kitchen, and larder. Worn corners and some touches of shabby carpentry indicated it was likely what remained of the original shepherd’s cottage before it was so extravagantly expanded.

The old, solid table lacked seating, and the area near the old hearth lacked anything but a few broken bits of crockery and cookware, plus a few candles that Xena lit. But once she turned into the nook that held the larder, her eyebrow rose.

Shelves held the remains of preserved and dried foods and vegetables long gone to mush. For some reason, no one had wanted to loot food from the home of a dead poisoner. The higher shelves held little pots and piles of desiccated plants, even their smells faded with age, and to the side was a very small worktable with a few tools still on it, familiar to Xena as useful for herb lore. She picked up a mortar and pestle left close to the edge and gave it a light sniff. Was the acrid odor her imagination, or did something sinister really still linger in this place? The bottom of the mortar almost looked darker than it should have in the candlelight.

She turned to leave the nook, but the room was not as she left it. One- no, two twisted bodies lay in a pool of candlelight near the table. A man and a woman, faces black and eyes bulging. Xena froze and opened her senses to absorb anything and everything that might explain such a horrifying discovery.

The woman might have been pretty before the rigor of death set her in permanent agony. Arms clad in rich fabric had brought both hands up to clutch at her throat. The man was dressed more plainly but in clothes in good repair, likely clean before the wineskin in his hands had splattered a dark stain down his chest. The other hand, visibly strong and with blunt, wide digits, clutched at his own throat.


Xena looked up from the tableau to yell at the door, “No, don’t come in!” as Gabrielle entered into view. The younger woman looked around and then cocked her head at Xena, who looked back around the room herself.

The bodies were gone.

She relaxed her shoulders minutely and planted her candle-free hand on her hip. “What in Hades’ undertunic is going on in this place?”

“That’s what I’d like to know.” Gabrielle took a few steps and met her in the middle of the room, just a pace away from where the bodies had lain. “You weren’t upstairs a minute ago, were you?”

“No, I was here. Why?”

“I saw you in a mirror. Xena, you winked at me. You’re not messing with me, are you?”

Xena brushed off the suggestion, “No, of course not. Gabrielle, did you see anything on the floor when you got here?”

“What? No, just you yelling at me to stop.” They traded descriptions of their odd encounters.

Gabrielle heaved an enormous sigh, leaning her staff against her body and placing her now free hand on her abdomen. “Why couldn’t it have been a scam? Do you have any experience with strange visions like this?”

“Not much that you weren’t there for… the mix of personal and impersonal images is odd; I’m not sure if they have more to do with you and I or what happened in this house.”

“What did happen in this house? Those bodies sounded like poisoning victims, right? Stallos and his new patron?”

“Sure. Aconitum grows all over these hills, and someone here knew what they were doing around herbs. Not likely the husband, since he croaked from it.”


“Right. A little bit can be medicinal if you’re certain kinds of sick or anxious, but enough will strangle you just as well as a noose. Heck of a thing to come home to.” Xena examined her lover more closely in the candlelight and saw an extra thread of tension in her brow. “Hey, are you all right? We don’t have to do this tonight if it’s too much.”

Xena meant it. Being unable to trust one’s own senses was tough for anyone to handle, and she would respect if Gabrielle needed to take a step back off this one for the time being.

Gabrielle looked down and let out a smaller sigh before gazing back up at her, her smile slightly rueful. “I’m fine, and I know this work is important. I’m just tired, and I’m on my cycle, and I was really looking forward to a night snuggling with you in a real bed.”

“Aw.” Xena wrapped her free arm around Gabrielle and kissed her forehead through a smile. Gabrielle leaned into her in response, nestling her head against Xena’s neck.

Xena asked gently, “Is that what the wineskin was about?”

Gabrielle sniffed. “...Maybe.”

Xena rubbed her jaw against Gabrielle’s hair and cuddled her closer, even as she glanced around for threats. “I don’t blame you then. If we can find the time, I’ll heat up some wine for you and mix in some herbs that’ll help.”

“I looove you,” Gabrielle crooned against her chest.

Xena grinned. “Even if it means staying up all night in a freaky house? I know this isn’t the best part of the life.”

Gabrielle unburied her head to grin back up at her. “Yes, because you’re the best part of my life.”

Positively melting inside, Xena just had to lean down and meet Gabrielle in a kiss. “I love y-”

Xena cut off as a brand new sound trickled into her ear. First just a rumble, it ramped into an otherworldly scream of rage that she could feel in her spine. A tingle against her senses made her duck, Gabrielle still held against her and their candleholders kept clear of their hair by instinct alone.  A busted chunk of crockery shattered into further pieces against the wall behind where their heads had been.

They both tossed their candles onto the table and brought their weapons to bear, backs to the wall. A broken piece of a wooden cooking implement flew out of the corner only to be swatted out of the air by Xena’s sword. She stood at the ready for several moments longer, but all that came was a handful of dried plant matter scattered from the windowless larder into the room, and one of the candles went out. Then, nothing.

Xena straightened and looked at Gabrielle, who was giving her sword a strange look.

“Xena, hold that up again?”

She did. “What’s up?”

“I’m not sure yet, but I do know that this house is not empty. Did that sound like a woman’s voice to you?”

“Yeah, and about that,” Xena turned her head to address the apparently-empty room, “what gives, Skalme? That’s you, right? You successfully killed your husband, and you took out some poor woman in the bargain. And then you leapt right into a ravine afterwards, so you even punished yourself. What keeps you hanging around here?”

No answer. Did Skalme have a problem with the house? The monument to her husband’s skills and their relationship, the place where she had gone mad? Maybe they should just burn it down. Xena began chewing on that idea and on the evidence they had found so far. Something wasn’t adding up.

Talented, industrious husband. Hardworking wife, doted upon. A healthy herd. A prospect for a better life walking right through the front door, deep pockets at her back… and then two poisonings and a suicide.

Gabrielle walked around her to pick up their candles and relight the dead one. “I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s one room we haven’t checked yet, upstairs. I didn’t get to it before the mirror thing happened.”


Gabrielle led Xena up the stairs and to the left. She hesitated in the doorway to cast light into the completely dark room, ensuring nothing moved or lay dead before she stepped inside ahead of Xena.

The door slammed behind her, and she heard the thump of Xena banging her fist on the other side in anger.

“Gabrielle! Are you okay?”

She spun to look back at the door. “Yeah, I- uh-uhaaaaaaahh!”

Spiders. Multitudes of them. Out of nowhere they ran into the circle of light on the floor and up her limbs before she could start to scream. They surged up until they dripped from her elbows, and she had to stop screaming to seal her mouth closed. One bit, and then another, and several more sunk fangs into her flailing arms and the back of her knee before the door exploded off its hinges.

Luckily, Gabrielle had stumbled away from the doorway in her panic, and now Xena sheathed her sword to smack and swipe the spiders away. After several moments where Gabrielle was sure her heart would simply stop if she couldn’t let out her horror in a blood-curdling yell, the spiders simply evaporated into smoke.

Gabrielle let out a short yell anyway, wriggling and swiping at herself just in case while Xena picked up their fallen candles, which thankfully had not started any fires.

“I do NOT like this house!” The spiders may have been smoke, but their bites were real, and she had ten or so starting to itch all over. She looked to her lover for sympathy and found herself eyeing the Chakram on Xena’s hip as Xena shifted the candles to one hand. A light inconsistent with the candlelight played along its edge and faded away.

Xena used her free hand to turn Gabrielle and position her bitten limbs in the candlelight. “I don’t think it likes you either, sweetheart. Do these burn? Or are they numb?”

Gabrielle let her fuss an extra moment just for the comfort of her touch. “They just itch.”

“Well, I hate to say it-” Xena squeezed Gabrielle’s shoulder, “-but we can’t leave something as evil as this house just laying around the countryside. Can you look through this room with me, or do you want to make for the door?”

Gabrielle took a long breath and let it out slowly. “If you stay right with me.” She doubted the spirit would let them out the front door anyway.

Xena’s proud nod made the itch not seem as bad. “I won’t cross any more thresholds without a hand on you after that stunt. What’s this desk?”

Under a shuttered window sat the main piece of furniture in the room - a large desk with an angled top, probably very comfortable for drawing or drafting. Cubbies on the side held old parchment, quills, and various tools, and a separate, larger set of cubbies against the right wall held more parchment but mostly empty shelves. Gabrielle guessed valuables had been there, since looted.

Xena tugged at the desk front and it popped open, revealing storage for more quills and things. Gabrielle rustled through the odds and ends, but Xena just stared down into it. After several moments, she reached in to knock on the bottom of the compartment, then nudged Gabrielle aside and punched straight down at it.

Further blows and some prying revealed a hidden compartment no doubt accessible by some clever mechanism they didn’t have time to decipher. And inside, amongst the new splinters, they found tokens and letters that filled in some of the story of Skalme and Stallos.

Gabrielle looked up from a letter that had been sealed with a kiss in wax, long since broken. “He was cheating on her.”

Xena was sniffing a handkerchief in rich purple, her eyebrow twitching at whatever she found. “I can see that. He was clever with wood and stone, but I don’t think he wrought that pretty gold chain there himself. And I hope this wasn’t his perfume.”

“Well, that’s one reason to murder a husband. What do we do about it?”

“Restless spirits aren’t exactly my area of expertise, Gabrielle. The only thing I can think to do is talk to her, since we can’t lay hands on her but she can us.”

Gabrielle chewed on that. It didn’t sound foolproof, but she didn’t have any better ideas. “All right. Maybe being heard will help.”

“Or maybe we can offer her something. Or burn the house down; I don’t know. One way to find out. That is, if we can find her in here before she tries to kill us again.”

Gabrielle allowed herself a prideful smirk. “That, I’ve figured out. Whenever she’s around, there’s a weird light I can only see in reflections. I first noticed it in the mirror earlier. It’s kind of floaty.”

Xena smiled back at her. “Good job. I thought I saw something in the Chakram after the spiders, but I figured it was the candle. If you hold it, and I hold out my sword, we should have some warning.”

The pair armed themselves, and Gabrielle put her hand firmly on Xena’s shoulder before they crept back onto the landing. They tried the bedroom and found nothing, and they passed down the stairs similarly unmolested. But when they turned into the sitting room, a light brighter than the hearth’s coals drifted across the sword and the Chakram.

In her most commanding voice, Xena demanded, “Skalme, show yourself. Give us a sign you’re here.”

“Skalme, we just want to talk. What do you want? Did you even go mad, or did you just kill your husband because he cheated on you?” Gabrielle thought of it as she said it. What if the man had been telling the villagers lies about his wife, with all his prestige and skill behind him? With Skalme the shepherd rarely in town, and with how distressed she must have been about her husband… and then Stallos had brought the now-dead other woman to their home. Gabrielle would bet that was his lover.

“My partner here is a storyteller, Skalme. She can drag his name through the mud if it’ll help you rest.”

Suddenly, a feeling of malevolence rumbled in Gabrielle’s guts, and before the fire, a formless mass of smoky, oily darkness appeared. The coals burst to life again in a flare of deep, unnatural blue.

Xena continued as she put away her sword. “Or if you need other help, we know how to find Charon or even speak to Hades. Skalme, tell us what you need so you can stop killing people.”

Gabrielle added in a kind tone, “What do you need to be at peace?”

“Peeeaaaace?” hissed a scratchy, feminine voice as the mass solidified further. The general shape of narrowed eyes and a too-wide mouth floated near its top. “There is no peace. There is no love!”

A rush of darkness flew around Xena and grabbed hold of Gabrielle, knocking her to the ground. Captured, pinned, she grasped at her throat as it failed to allow any air in. Something cold wound its way around her neck, stealing her body’s very warmth as she tried and failed to gasp.

“No!” Xena immediately fell to her knees beside her and played her healer’s hands over Gabrielle’s taut form, fruitlessly. “Let her go!”

“Love is a liiiieee.”

As Xena thumped on Gabrielle’s chest and cast around for something to help, Gabrielle felt a mixture of her own terror and the spirit’s spite. As if she had first trod on the serpent wrapped around her throat, and it was lashing out its last while she tried to heave and gasp in its clutches.

Was this it? Would she be taken out by an enemy she couldn’t even see, all while her lover watched?

And then Xena yelled, “Take me instead, you bitch!”

The otherworldly voice let out an epithet - “Fool!” - and freed Gabrielle to attack Xena instead. She slammed to the floor even harder than Gabrielle had.

Gabrielle coughed her way into resuming control of herself; she rolled over and reached out to her lover. “No! No, you had me; you take me, Skalme! Xena, I won’t let you sacrifice yourself for me!”

She grasped one of Xena’s hands in both of her own and looked down into her eyes, which were beginning to bulge. Until they shut in pain, and Gabrielle fell forward to let out a sob into Xena’s neck. Tears fell and hit the straining skin there, and Xena jerked.

Gabrielle sobbed again but gathered the strength to lift her head and demand, “Me next. Me next, you rotten monster. If you take her from me, I’ll become like you and never let you rest.” She lifted her head to watch Xena’s face, and more tears fell.

But this time, when Xena jerked, Gabrielle saw that it was with a gasp of breath - just a mouthful of air passing into her lungs.

A wild idea hit her and, half on instinct, she pressed her lips to Xena’s jaw, then her neck, gratified to feel it spasm with a rush of air out, and then back in, and out again. Under ardent affection, Xena was breathing again, and she squeezed Gabrielle’s hand.

Back by the fire, the spirit manifested again as a black mass, its edge smoking in a way distinct from her general oily smokiness. Cleaner, nearly white.

“You burn me! It’s not fair. It’s not fair!” She let out a howl that made both living women cringe.

Gabrielle responded, “No, it’s not fair what happened to you, but you can’t keep killing people to- to feed your rage!” She and Xena helped each other stand up, their own shadows harsh and roiling in the bright blue firelight.

The dark mass that was all that remained of Skalme coalesced into something more human-shaped. “He lied! He was everything to me, and he took everything. He destroyed my reputation, betrayed my love, and killed me, and I didn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing his death.”

Oh. Several things fell into place in Gabrielle’s mind. Skalme had provided Stallos a home and time to explore his art, had let him experiment on their house, had shared the fruits of his subsequent success, and then… he’d killed her? Gabrielle asked, wonderingly, “You still loved him, didn’t you? Part of you does even now. Did you even want to poison him?”

Something like a real face appeared at the top of the mass. “He killed me, and he found my medicine, and he drank himself and his whore to their graves.”

Medicine? The wolfsbane - didn’t Xena say it could help if someone was anxious?

Xena grabbed Gabrielle’s hand. “He drove you to need that medicine, didn’t he? Lied to you about his feelings? Lied about you to everyone? Talked up his mad old lady out in the hills, so they treated you like dirt when you showed up in town?”

Another flare of unnatural blue fire was the answer.

Xena pressed, “Listen, you’re in pain. I know how you feel. Anger like that… it drove me to do worse than you have.” Gabrielle squeezed Xena’s hand, and the ghost shrieked out a new surge of rage.

Xena continued. “But I’ve learned that people matter, and love is real, Skalme. He did you wrong and died for it, and took his lover to the grave with him. You deserved better, but it’s over. You can’t keep taking revenge on everyone that tries to sleep here. They don’t deserve it.”

Xena tugged Gabrielle forward and reached out to the mass, and Gabrielle followed suit. They touched the oily blackness together and ignored the chill as they looked instead into each other’s eyes. Just as Gabrielle had felt Skalme’s spite and rage when in her clutches, she wanted Skalme to feel what she and Xena felt for each other, to have some taste of goodness and light and peace.

Skalme shrieked, but it faded and choked off. She became less and less monstrous until she resembled nothing more than a translucent, exhausted woman. The couple turned back toward her, and she looked at them, staring longingly at their joined hands before gazing into their eyes. The chill under their hands faded as Skalme turned and walked toward the fire, fading into nothing before touching its now-orange flames.

After that, the house felt different. Cozy, even, in front of the cheery fire. They searched for more reflected glints of light or disturbances but found none and eventually laid down to sleep for the scant remainder of the night.

They didn’t take the reward money from the villagers. They never did, when helping people with problems they couldn’t solve themselves. They did, however, set the story about the woman straight. Gabrielle sang of how Skalme had supported her husband with her land, home, and herd until he became a traveling marvel that drew the fancy of a pretty rich woman and her noble family. How his wife became an inconvenience who he lied about until she began to make wineskins full of strong medication to sip. And how he and the mistress murdered her, tried to celebrate with her medicine, and died.

Xena and Gabrielle did accept the new bedroll, though, and the pretty dagger.

But they never did drink that wineskin they asked for.


End note: If you have access to wolfsbane, please do not attempt to use it medicinally or otherwise. The ancient peoples didn’t have anything better or less deadly; we do!

Also, if you liked this, I have lots more Xena content on Archive of Our Own, under ManiacalShen!

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